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Built to last: Probat celebrates 150 years

From the June 2018 issue.

Probat CEO Wim Abbing shares the company's 150-year story of building long-lasting high-quality products and relationships.

When business partners Theodor von Gimborn, Alex van Gülpen and Johann Heinrich Lensing started out in 1868, they envisioned making commercial coffee roasters that would stand the test of time, consistently turning out high-quality coffee for customers of all sizes. Today, longevity and quality are characteristic not only of Probat machines, but also of the company’s relationships – both within the family business and its employee network, and externally among its partners and customers.

During the past 150 years, the company based in Emmerich, Germany, has built an expansive product portfolio with 115 patents and loyal customer and employee bases spanning the globe.
“We’ve been making coffee roasters ever since and continue to provide the coffee industry with enduring solutions that are in step with the times, but that also continue to function beyond that time,” says Probat CEO Wim Abbing. “Our machines are built to last, but they are built first and foremost to produce perfect coffee.”

A history of ingenuity
Combining van Gülpen and Lensing’s expertise in coffee and von Gimborn’s engineering prowess, the pioneering trio founded what would become today’s Probat. In the process of perfecting their roasters and building their enterprise, the partners established a successful foundry that manufactured their cast-iron roasters and other unrelated machinery.

“The company started out as a manufacturing facility for coffee roasters, but at that time, if you had a foundry, you made everything else [in addition to] what you needed for the business,” Abbing tells Global Coffee Report, listing agricultural equipment, windows, and machinery for the booming brick industry as examples. “Coffee was always at the core of the business, though.”

As such, innovation was happening every step of the way. Just two years into business, they created the very first spherical roaster, fueling the company’s reputation among a growing customer base and in the greater industry.
In 1884, that reputation and the number of happy customers would continue to swell with the invention, and subsequent patent, of the rapid coffee roaster. This roaster, which rotates a drum along a horizontal axis, remains the most commonly used method of slow roasting coffee today.

Even in those early days, the longevity and quality that would come to characterise Probat’s people and relationships was already a defining force.

So strong that it would revive the company after devastating attacks during World War II that destroyed the city and factory. A call from a long-time customer and the loyalty of surviving employees brought the company back from ruin shortly after the war ended.

“It’s always amazing to see people who have nothing left after such a devastating war, restart and go back into business,” Abbing says. In 1949, the first new cast was poured in the foundry’s newly rebuilt production halls and the company returned to creating innovations so its global customers could continue producing high-quality coffee.

In 1969, Probat introduced the industry’s first tangential roaster, its Jupiter model, and in 1973 came the first centrifugal roaster, its Saturn model.

Although some innovations over the decades failed to achieve commercial success, they all continued to be motivated by Probat’s dedication to longevity and quality, ensuring promising futures for both customers and company employees.

Involving family, engaging customers
By the time Abbing joined the company in 1999, he already had somewhat of a history with the company. Not only was he born and raised in Emmerich, but he would eventually marry Tina von Gimborn, his childhood sweetheart and Theodor’s great-granddaughter.

With a background in finance, Abbing started in the administration department and quickly rose through the ranks in line with the company’s need for strong leadership and family representation at the C level. By that time, Abbing’s father-in-law was chairman of Probat, having left operations in 1993. Although the van Gülpen and Lensing families remained shareholders over the years, Abbing explains, the von Gimborns were the only family fully entrenched in the business. In 2002, Abbing was appointed CEO at 35 years old.

“[Very early on,] I found a great respect for the family when it came to our employees,” Abbing tells GCR. “They are happy to have a family member as CEO because it supports different values if you work with the family. It’s totally different than a regular corporate business.”

One of Abbing’s first steps in leadership was to shift the business from its focus on productivity and standards to that of customers and user-oriented solutions. While Probat had forever been dedicated to creating long-lasting, high-quality products for its customers, it neglected to involve these customers in the innovation.

“We forgot to talk to our customers about roasters, about why we’re doing things, how we’re doing things, and how we could do it better,” Abbing points out. “We learn more from our customers than we can learn by ourselves, so now we talk to our customers as much as possible to learn from them and their needs, and then develop our machines according to their needs.”

Clients are the driving force behind the business more than ever before. “We work very closely with our customers on new developments and we do very special things with our customers to make sure that they find the right solutions for their strategies,” Abbing says. “Our machines are the result of [extensive] testing and collaboration with our customers. This is why I’m convinced that we deliver the perfect coffee roasters.”

Smart innovations
One of Probat’s latest major innovations is a perfect example of the company’s collaboration with and commitment to its customers. In 2007, the company started working toward a Smart Factory, a concept that would later be known on a greater scale as Industry 4.0.

Similar to the motivation behind the company’s revival in 1946, the idea was spurred by a Probat customer and made possible by a dedicated team. The customer wanted internet connectivity and greater automation in its coffee-processing equipment. So in subsequent years, Probat started developing highly intelligent control solutions that enable nearly all equipment across the entire plant and the human user to communicate in real time via internet-connected devices.
Says Abbing of the significant move: “It’s not something you do because it’s fashionable, you do it because it’s good for your customers. That is why we did it.”

In addition to Industry 4.0, he says other innovations over the past couple of decades have been centred on energy saving, the environment, sustainability, and workplace safety. The latest innovations in these areas will be on showcase at Probat’s 150th Anniversary Coffee Symposium – Connecting Markets in September.

Abbing is careful to point out that Probat is methodical about the innovations it brings to market. After engaging with and learning from its customers about “topics that will be important in the coming years, [we ensure] that these impulses and ideas are ready for market release”, he tells GCR. “We have to keep in mind that our customers have to roast coffee day in and day out, so we can’t treat them as our guinea pigs. This is why we don’t jump on every train coming through the station and why we really think things through.”

Although Probat has long had dedicated research and development (R&D) efforts, in 2012 it upgraded its existing R&D centre in Emmerich. The state-of-the-art facility features six industrial roasters, with a total hourly production capacity of nearly four tonnes of green coffee. The machines, including the then-new Jupiter Hybrid, can be used for roasting demonstrations as well as customer trials.

The upgraded R&D centre also showcases the latest developments in Probat’s evolving smart factory, and the adjacent laboratory enables Probat to run chemical analyses for customers or its own developments.

“The R&D centre is an expression of our technological leadership and capability, where everybody can witness and feel the art of engineering,” Abbing says. “Every time I enter the building I am filled with a deep sense of achievement.”

Probat today and tomorrow
Among Probat’s more recent achievements are its new Service Level Agreements (SLA), a series of customised service packages to further address customers’ needs, as well as extend product longevity and quality. Ranging from Classic to Premium, the SLA provide varying degrees of support offerings to clients, including maintenance and servicing of roasters, parts and availability, phone support for internal maintenance, and training and consultation.

Facilitating some of that on-site support and maintenance are Probat’s increasing number of service offices around the world, including its new Canadian subsidiary ED Industrial. Prior to the acquisition in early 2017, EDI had been working closely with Probat as a primary installation and maintenance company with extensive experience in coffee roasting machinery.

As such, a more formal partnership was the natural next step. It allowed both parties to focus on what they do best, and gave Probat a greater North American presence in the service space, an essential component in the aforementioned customer-focused shift Abbing initiated.

According to John Fortin, President of Probat’s US business, the acquisition “opens up new prospects to grow our service business throughout North America [and] significantly enhances the power of our customer representation across all of our product lines, allowing us to better serve our market.”

Over the years, Probat has expanded its global presence to include production, sales and service facilities via subsidiaries in Germany, the US, Canada, Brazil, India, and Italy. In addition to these locations, Probat has more than 40 agents worldwide to ensure representation near all customers.

“We want to continuously and consistently expand our global presence on all levels,” Abbing says, “[but] we don’t do this solely for our own purposes. We want to be where our customers are.”

He adds that future expansion will be specific to service and support, rather than sales or production, to address the need for more service offices and people around the world.

While Probat continues to support and invest in its customers, it does the same for more than 900 global employees. Abbing recognises that the successes and growth the company has seen during the past 150 years wouldn’t be possible without its employees and the expertise they possess.

“Our employees’ knowledge is Probat’s capital and passing on that knowledge is part of our company culture – our heart, beating for generations,” he says. “You can build wonderful machines, but they only work if you know how and why they work.

“We are permanently investing in the people at Probat […] to prepare ourselves for upcoming generations so that we can continue to successfully operate the company.”

Appropriately, investment in its customers and employees continues the common threads of longevity and quality that have woven through most aspects of the 150-year-old company. Although the fourth-generation, family-owned company has been through a lot in that time, its commitment to long-lasting, high-quality products and relationships has not wavered.

“After 150 years, three wars and many ups and downs in the company’s history, we look calmly to the future,” Abbing says. “We’re certain this company is perfectly positioned for what lies ahead and for the next generation.” GCR

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